Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Penultimate Thoughts on Richard Dawkins

If you enjoy this essay, please consider purchasing a copy of Where Dawkins Went Wrong and Other Theological Blockbusters from this address - a collection of  some of the best and most-linked-to essays from this blog and its predecessor. It contains my five part assault critique of 'The God Delusion', along with essays on gay bishops, the 'gospel' of Judas, the 'legend' of the three wise men.






The Independent has been giving away little booklets called "A Pocket History of the World." The "Classical" section spends 1,500 words dealing with the early history of Christianity:



"...Jesus was an enlightened charismatic who made a virtue out of poverty and lectured on the benefits of non-violence. His message was simple: be peaceful, love your neighbour as yourself; if someone strikes you on one cheek, do not hit back but offer then the other; do not worship false idols such as money or material possessions: and above all be humble, for one day the meek will inherit the earth..."




You couldn't possibly write such a short synthesis of such a big subject without making a couple of debatable points. A hypothetical post-evangelical liberal - let's call him "Andy" might read this paragraph and say "There's more in the New Testament than the Sermon on the Mount, you know. Are you sure you aren't unconsciously assuming that Jesus message must have been peace, love and toleration because, dammit, that's what all great teachers teach?" But he'd probably like the "above all, be humble" part. A hypothetical sceptic - Dickie, for the sake of argument - on the other hand, might assert that Jesus didn't, in fact, teach about peace, love, humility and turning the other cheek: but was a racist who thought that only Jews could go to heaven. The Christians suppressed this Jesus because they're all racist child molesters...er...



It goes on:



"...Jesus followers saw him perform miracles and came to regard him as the earthly incarnation of God as prophesied by Isaiah and other in the Jewish Torah. One of the most deeply held Jewish beliefs was that, at the time of the covenants between God, Abraham and Moses, the Israelites were identified as God's chosen people. Yet here was a man whose followers claimed he was King of the Jews and who offered the prospect of eternal salvation to anyone who believed in him, regardless of their colour, race or creed..."




Joey: "Er....wouldn't be a good idea to delete 'colour, race or creed' from your auto-text? I mean, apart from being a cliché, isn't 'If they believed in him...regardless of creed' pretty obviously a contradiction in terms?"



Jakob: "I don't know that Isaiah did prophecy that there would be an earthly incarnation of YHWH. I think that may be after-the-fact Christian exegesis."



Andy: "The phrase 'his followers came to regard him as the earthly incarnation of God' sounds like bet-hedging to me - as if the writer thinks, but isn't quite prepared to say, that the Real Jesus was a hippy rabbi and the Son of God stuff was a ret-con by his fans."



Dickie: "I've travelled from one end of this galaxy to the other; seen a lot of strange stuff, but I've never seen anything that will make be believe in one all powerful force controlling everything. It's all a lot of simple tricks and nonsense."



"His body mysteriously disappeared three days after being incarcerated in a tomb and his disciples began to see visions of him. They wrote about these miraculous events, which they called the Resurrection, and believed it was their divine mission to spread the good news about the son of God coming down to Earth and dying on a cross so that everyone who believed in him might have everlasting life."




Davy: "That's a surprisingly credulous treatment of the Gospels. You seem to regard is as a datum that Jesus' body vanished and that the disciples honestly thought that they had seen him. But Paul knows nothing of the empty tomb, and 'the earliest and most reliable' versions of Mark don't have any Resurrection appearances. What you are doing is getting your allegory and your history muddled up. In fact the disciples came to believe that Jesus was alive, and made up the story of the empty tomb years later to explain the idea."



Rowan: "Right, it's an allegory but it has nothing to do with life after death; it's there to demonstrate that it's a bad idea to take your frustrations out on minority groups.."



Andy: "The 'visions' part is something you've brought to the stories, not something you've found in them. In the stories, Jesus goes some way to establish that he is not a vision - he goes out of his way to eat, drink and display physical injuries. (It can hardly be said too often that the disciples already believed in ghosts, and Jesus had to assure them that he was not one.)"



Dickie: "You and your allegories! It's an entirely fictitious story and has no more to do with any historical person called Jesus than the story of the Lady of the Lake has to do with an historical person called Arthur. Sky Fairy! Invisible Jewish Zombie! Leprechauns! Long white beard! Child molestors!"



"Greek thinkers who followed the idea of a universal force of nature first put forward by Socrates, Plato and Aristotle found the concept of a single universal God who was open to all people rather compelling. The biggest problem for them was how to reconcile this all-pervasive divine force with a carpenter's son from Galilee whose followers claimed he was the incarnation of God. The problem wasn't finally settled until after Christianity was legalised in the Roman Empire by the Emperor Galerius in 311 CE in a desperate bid to contain the increasing threat the new religion posed to Rome's imperial authority. In the end the idea of the Trinity provided the answer. It combined the Jewish God of the Old Testament as the Father, with the person of Jesus Christ as his Son, and the divine Platonic or nature force pervading all things as the Holy Spirit. The idea of the Trinity still marks out Christianity as distinct from other religions. This doctrine was finally ratified and codified into an official creed at the Council of Nicea in 325 CE."




Andy: "Some idea of the Trinity must go back way further than 311 - the phrase "The Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost" occurs several times in the New Testament. I like the 'ratified and codified' part, though: if everyone wrote that clearly, than children would be able to grow up in a world free of the horror of Dan Brown."



Rowan: "I wouldn't like to, as it were, set up the mystery of the Trinity as a hurdle that you feel you have, as it were, to get under, in a very real sense."



Davey: "To say that the 'trinity' marks Christianity out from other religions is to say nothing at all. You might as well say that luminous noses mark jumblies out from all other dongs. "





So I guess that's my question: are Andy, Rowan and Dave talking about a null-subject, like the internal organs of unicorns? Would the opinion of a person with more knowledge (about what Jesus said, what the early Christians said about what he said, and what modern Christians say about what they say they said he said) be better placed to have a a valid opinion than someone who thought that the three persons of the Trinity were Tinky Winky, Dipsy and La-La? Are the Indy's remarks about the doctrine of the Atonement and the Trinity ('theological' subjects if every there were two) so dull, so long-winded and technical as to be impenetrable to the general reader? How much does any of this impact on the general question of whether or not there is a God? (If the answer is, as I suspect 'not at all', then why do the Dickies keep referring to it?) Can religion be coherently talked about in the secular sphere? Or is the Independent suffering from an infestation by midichlorians?

26 comments:

Sam Dodsworth said...

Let me think...

Obviously, what Jesus said, what people believed he said, and what they did about it are all not null subjects. But the content of the beliefs themselves could be a null subject.

Consider the doctrine of the Trinity. People's opinions of it have had a vast impact on history, but the actual question of how many people God is is as meaningless to an unbeliever as (say) the question of when exactly Dr Watson was in Afghanistan.

Does that help? I need to think about this more, but I wanted to get something in before this degenerates into another round of "my wilful misunderstanding of memes is bigger than yours".

Site Owner said...

The coherency or incoherency of the beliefs of those who believe is evidence for or against the existance of God, exactly to the extent that the believers do or do not claim to have inerrant knowledge or apriori knowledge or revelation, or historical revelation about God.

Simon Bucher-Jones

Andrew Rilstone said...

Simon:

Does that imply that an informed criticism of the idea of God needs (or would benefit from) informed knowledge of what ideas the various flavours of theist have held (i.e theology?)

Paul Wright said...

are Andy, Rowan and Dave talking about a null-subject, like the internal organs of unicorns?

Yes, because there almost certainly isn't a God of the Christian sort. No, because it could still make sense to talk about what, for example, Jesus or Paul or the early church or the later church thought about this stuff, what we can deduce from extant writings, and so on.

Would the opinion of a person with more knowledge (about what Jesus said, what the early Christians said about what he said, and what modern Christians say about what they say they said he said) be better placed to have a a valid opinion than someone who thought that the three persons of the Trinity were Tinky Winky, Dipsy and La-La?

An opinion about what? Certainly they'd be better placed to have valid opinion on Christian thought.

How much does any of this impact on the general question of whether or not there is a God? (If the answer is, as I suspect 'not at all', then why do the Dickies keep referring to it?)

On the general question, probably not very much. On the specific question of whether there's a Christian sort of God, that depends on whether God's bothered whether people believe true stuff about him. Many Christians seem to think he is, which is odd, because they then disagree noisily with the other Christians also who think he is. Either theology isn't that important after all, the other lot are blinded by Satan, or God's not there. If agreement within Christianity is anything to go by, what God really thinks is important is that people meet up a regularly and sing songs (except for the Quakers, I suppose).

When I was reading The God Delusion in my daily neo-atheist fundamentalist secularist militant quiet time, I don't recall Dawkins saying that much about specifically Christian theology (I vaguely remember something about the Trinity being silly). Does he keep referring to it? Or does Dickie stand for the generic neo-atheist etc. etc. here?

Can religion be coherently talked about in the secular sphere? Or is the Independent suffering from an infestation by midichlorians?

I'm not sure religion can be coherently talked about. Witness the wars among atheists about whether religious people really mean what they're apparently saying. I'm torn between agreeing with Atran and thinking that it's rather patronising to say that the apparent factual assertions of religions are completely beside the point. Perhaps I'll do a blog post about it.

Political Scientist said...

'Does that help? I need to think about this more, but I wanted to get something in before this degenerates into another round of "my wilful misunderstanding of memes is bigger than yours".'

Perhaps we could compromise and teach "memes" as a branch of theology?

Gareth McCaughan said...

I agree with Sam and Paul that theology might be a non-subject when defined as "thinking about God" but not when defined as "thinking about thinking about God". This seems an obvious enough point that I'm guessing Andrew isn't simply confusing the two.

Another similarly obvious point: how much someone wishing to criticize beliefs about God needs to know about the details of those beliefs depends on what sort of criticism s/he is offering. If you think you have a refutation of all interesting forms of god-belief, then you may be right or wrong but it's unlikely that (say) an intimate knowledge of the writings of Eriugena on subjectivity will make much difference. If, on the other hand, your main point is that the doctrine of the Trinity is self-contradictory nonsense, then you'd better have at least a reasonable idea of what it is. And if your claim is that religion is so brain-damaging that no religious person can ever come up with any thinking or writing worthy of attention, then you'd better be familiar with at least a representative sample of the allegedly clever things done by religious people. (Of course no sane person would make that last claim; but it's not entirely unknown for opponents of the skeptics to offer counterarguments that make sense only as reactions to it.)

I can hazard a guess that "Dickie" and "Rowan" might represent particular real people, and perhaps "Andy" does too. But who's "Dav[e]y"?

Dan G said...

We Christians seem to get really wrapped up in matters of "belief". Do we believe the right things about the Trinity or do we believe the right things about the nature or the sovereignty of God. It seems to me that one of the main things Jesus was all about was battling against that mindset.

Sure beliefs are important in Christianity. You have to have beliefs or what's the point. And the Bible does give us some things to believe that are pretty clear. But on balance the belief bits are far outweighed by the action bits. And the action bits are mostly about the kinds of actions that most people, even most professed Christians, aren't very good at doing. Loving enemies, carrying each others burdens, turning the other cheek, feeding the hungry, comforting the widows and orphans, visiting the prisoners.

"By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." - John 13:35

Not force, not the inquisition, not political power, not making certain things illegal... Love for others. That's it. If that's insanity then commit me today.

Tom R said...

"isn't 'If they believed in him...regardless of creed' pretty obviously a contradiction in terms?"

Well, not completely (as in 100%) a contradiction in terms, if the author meant "If you believed in Jesus, it didn't matter (to [H]im) whether you expressed this faith by living as a Jew or as a Gentile" (eg, whether or not one kept the Sabbath). But I don't think the author did mean that.

Sam Dodsworth said...

Political Scientist:

Perhaps we could compromise and teach "memes" as a branch of theology?

Or theology as applied memetics?

--
Sam

Stephen said...

As an archaeologist, I'd certainly assert that understanding what different people believe/think about God/gods at different times is of huge importance - for understanding them. The specifics of belief inform and shape everything from hourly praxis to art and architecture. It's painful to contrast the tasks of interpreting prehistoric material culture with that of the early Christian era, where at least some knowledge of the specifics of belief can be gleaned. Whether an increased understanding of people (anthroplogy) through their beliefs is of any use to theology or the wider questions of God's presence or absence is another matter.

Word verification: "erisims". Indeed.

Andrew Rilstone said...

A radical liberal theologian e.g David Jenkins former Bishop of Durham.

Site Owner said...

If you claim that an omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent being has given you either directly (revelation) or indirectly (tradition/holy books recording revelation) access to otherwise unobservable truth, as soon as your truth is shown to be untrue your God is discredited by the strength of your religions need to maintain the 'revelation'. A religion that says 'this is our best guess about God' is at no risk, but commands (perhaps) no respect, one that says 'the sky *is* a metal dish and it can open and let more water in if God wants to flood the earth' or 'God madde the animals in one go exactly as they are now at about the same time, from clay' and means it literally, is at a lot of risk of being disbelieved, not because either proposition is inherently necessary, but because the religion insisted it was for so long.

Simon BJ

Gareth McCaughan said...

David Jenkins. Why, of course. Though I think he's less recognizable in your dialogue than Andy, Dickie and Rowan.

Andrew Rilstone said...

When I was reading The God Delusion in my daily neo-atheist fundamentalist secularist militant quiet time, I don't recall Dawkins saying that much about specifically Christian theology (I vaguely remember something about the Trinity being silly). Does he keep referring to it? Or does Dickie stand for the generic neo-atheist etc. etc. here?

Off the top of my head: he talks about the doctrine of the atonement, about the formation of the cannon of the new testament and the historicity of the gospels; about the ideology of the book of revelation (without, I suspect, taking the precaution of reading it first); about whether or not theists believe in an anthropomorphic God; about the morality of the old testament; about the ethical teaching of Jesus...

I don't know how many of those things count as theology. (Clearly, if you define a "subject" as "a big orange crab like thing with pincers that is often cooked live and served in expensive restaraunts" then theology is not a subject.)But they certainly don't figure on most biology courses....

Andrew Rilstone said...

Sam:

I think we stalled the last time you used the "asking question about fictitius character" analogy; and I'm a less sound on matters Sherlockian than I am Marvel Comics and Tolkien.

Might you comment on the passage I quoted from the Indy history of the world? e.g the Indy says Jesus believed in the brotherhood of humanity; Dickie says he was a Jewish-supremicist racist (*) Is this the kind of thing that can be meaningfully discussed? And is there any kind of knowledge or expertise which can be brought to bear on it?


(*)The historical Dickie says that the Jesus of the Bible is a pro Jewish racist...

Sam Dodsworth said...

I think we stalled the last time you used the "asking question about fictitius character" analogy...

You're right, of course. I keep accidentally resurrecting it because I'm looking for analogies that are neutral for both of us.. but that's not as easy as it seems.

Might you comment on the passage I quoted from the Indy history of the world? e.g the Indy says Jesus believed in the brotherhood of humanity; Dickie says he was a Jewish-supremicist racist (*) Is this the kind of thing that can be meaningfully discussed? And is there any kind of knowledge or expertise which can be brought to bear on it?

Well, that specific example is an argument about history that's limited by the lack of good primary sources. Historical expertise could be brought to bear on the what we do have, though, and could at least give us a range of likely views.

But I actually think the term we've all been missing here is "history of ideas"... more on that tomorrow, if I can find the time.

Sam Dodsworth said...

Back again. Having slept on it, I really don't think there's much I can add to what the other posters on this thread have said. The passage you quote is a (rather debatable) description of how early Christianity may have developed. That's a history of Christian beliefs - "thinking about thinking about God", in Gareth's words - so we can discuss it as history.

A better starting-point for why an atheist might be dismissive of theology is this. If I think (as I do) that it's obviously stupid to say that God is simultaneously one person and three people, then why should it matter if I also think that the three persons of the Trinity are Tinky Winky, Dipsy and La-La?

Andrew Rilstone said...

And so the long winter evenings rolled on.

If you say "Since Darwin discovered etc etc etc I see no reason to believe in God; I therefore see no reason to pay any attention to any claim or counter claim as to what he is like, and will therefore say no more about them" I have no problem whatsoever. Those things of which we cannot speak, therof we should shut the hell up about.

If you say "One of the reasons that I don't believe in God is that some of the claims made about him are rather silly" then you need to actually know and understand what those claims are."

I have said this at some length in this forum, and on the letters page of the Independent newspaper, and I cannot see what is complicated about.

Andrew Rilstone said...

... just reading back on that, I take the point that a particular factual inaccuracy doesn't necessarily invalidate a claim, although it may make the speaker look silly. (e.g A person's claim about the morality of the book of Hebrews is not necessarily wrong because they think that Hebrews is written by St Paul.) So, yes: someone might meaningfully give reasons why the idea of a super-personal being didn't make sense without committing himself to the names of the entities who made up that being. It might be quite a profitable rhetorical device, actually. But the second someone says "God doesn't exist because Christians believe that the second person of the Trinity is Christopher Robin" you put the book to one side and say "This person is a crackpot and will have nothing useful to say on this subject."

Sam Dodsworth said...

...and with that, I think we're basically in agreement.

usul_miller said...

How much does any of this impact on the general question of whether or not there is a God? (If the answer is, as I suspect 'not at all', then why do the Dickies keep referring to it?) Can religion be coherently talked about in the secular sphere?

There is an interesting discussion of a secular reading of the Bible that I found earlier this week, here: http://bloggingheads.tv/diavlogs/18107

In it, the two men discuss a secular reading of the Bible. You don't have to agree with the 'literalness' of the text. You don't even have to agree with the message of the text. You can just sit back from it, a distance removed, and analyze it, much like how one could analyze To Kill a Mockingbird.

And there certainly are good ways and bad ways to talk about To Kill a Mockingbird. You can write a simple book report on what happened in the novel: Boo Radley kills Bob Ewell. You can write about the themes of the novel: Bob Ewell is so racist and evil and Boo Radley so innocent and protective, that it would be unjust to prosecute Boo Radley for manslaughter or homicide.

You don't have to believe that the events ever happened. You don't even need to know that Harper Lee based the character of Scout on herself, even though it helps. You also don't need to believe in the argument of the book. You might think that respect for justice and law means that Boo Radley should be punished for killing a man because no one, no matter how odious, deserves to be stabbed, and a reclusive neighbor has no legitimate claim to be Judge and Jury.

But what if you wrote a different essay about how Bob Ewell stabbed Boo Radley instead? What if you wrote that "To Kill A Mockingbird" is advocating racism? That would be Bad.

I've rambled. The reason why this impacts the question of whether or not there is a God is this: both atheists and theists benefit from having a good interpretation of Scripture.

Imagine a person who becomes an atheist because he absolutely hates the hymn 'A Mighty Fortress is Our God'. What would Richard Dawkins think of such a person? He might say that whatever reason a person has for being an atheist is fine in his book. But I suspect that he would be more upset with this person. What if they hear 'I Know That My Redeemer Lives', love the song, and go back to church because of it? Surely atheism should be made of stronger stuff!

I'm trying to remember a quote about debate made by some famous philosopher. He said that rather than interpreting an opponent's argument in the weakest way possible, we should build up the other side's argument as much as we can before trying to knock it down. Employing this strategy would be more effective for atheists, and that is why they should strive to speak intelligently about what they are attacking.

Sam Dodsworth said...

both atheists and theists benefit from having a good interpretation of Scripture.

I'm not convinced.

Gareth McCaughan said...

usul miller, Daniel Dennett at least has said precisely that. I don't know whether he's the philosopher you have in mind.

dagonet said...

The Independant wrote:
"colour, race or creed"
Oh dear: they managed to be both historically, pleonasmically, & logically fallacious.
Still, they have good intentions (perhaps one could suggest "birthplace, politics, or even if they were slaves"?)

Political Scientist wrote:
"Perhaps we could compromise and teach "memes" as a branch of theology?"

More appropriatly metaphysics: though Memeticians, like Theosphists & Scientologists, would insist that Memes are based on direct observation of facts.
There has, of course, been attempts to use memetics in theology, even in apologetics ("religion", apparently, works as an immune system that keeps out too startlelingly new ideas, sorry, memevirus infections)

Dan G wrote:
"But on balance the belief bits are far outweighed by the action bits."

Perhaps I am letting my dislike of pragmatism get away with me here, but it seems to me that one of Our Lords points was that, from an ethical perspective, ones reason to take action is more important than what that action is?

usul miller wrote:
"both atheists and theists benefit from having a good interpretation of Scripture."

....If the particular branch of theism being argued against has a scripture.
Things were certainly easier when the alternatives where either platonist catholocism or epicurean materialism.

But of course, all this is a waste of time, dialectics of the choreography of potentiality fields: we really ought to be out helping the poor.
Or playing football.

Andrew Stevens said...

He said that rather than interpreting an opponent's argument in the weakest way possible, we should build up the other side's argument as much as we can before trying to knock it down.

This is known as "the principle of charity," useful because it helps to avoid the ad hominem and straw man fallacies. It's most associated with Quine and Donald Davidson, particularly the latter. Many, probably most, philosophers since have agreed with the principle so you can find statements of it in Dennett, Blackburn, or most other modern philosophers one can name.

Even Dawkins has conceded that Biblical literacy is necessary in our culture in order to call oneself educated. I wouldn't say though that a Chinese atheist would gain much from a study of the Bible.

Paul Wright said...

I'll have to read TGD again. I do remember some howlers in there (e.g. claiming Paul wrote Hebrews). I agree with Dawkins that most Christians avow (to use Dennett's term) belief in the sort of God he argues against, although as I said, I'm not sure whether this avowal means what it says. Still, Dawkins does theists the courtesy of accepting that they mean what they say.

I'd class the sorts of God-talk you mention as theology. I expect what an atheist means by referring to it as a non-subject is that he doesn't feel the need to look into the parts of it which don't pertain to the arguments he's making about whether God exists.

On the principle of charity, thinking of the Least Convenient Possible World is interesting, although perhaps it's more of a tool for examining your own motivations than for working out what this world is like.